photo: Ben Sklar
photo: Ben Sklar

Here at JLC, our hats are off to (or our waists bent and hands pressed together in a sign of utmost respect for) Gail Vittori, winner of the 2015 Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainability. 

Long before the Brundtland Report coined the term "sustainable development," before LEED certification became an influential marketing term for sustainable buildings, and before the term "green building" came into being, Gail Vittori was laying the groundwork for this domain, quitetly and with substance.

(Certainly the ideas behind green building go far back. The work of Peter vanDresser, dubbed an "ecologist," epitomized some of the best experimental housing built during the "back-to-the-land movement" of the 1960's and 70's. VanDresser drew on his early work in the Decentralist Movement of the 1930's, which advocated for a "wholistic approach" to community development. Frank Lloyd Wright coined the term "organic architecture" - a design process that focuses on the ties between human habitation and the natural environment - in 1914. It's unclear who actually coined the term "green building," but if I had to place a wager on it, my bet would be with Gail and her colleagues in the Austin city green building program.)

Beyond her early work on the team that developed the nation's first green building standard for the City of Austin, Gail Vittori has a string of accolades  that qualify her for the Hanley Award. As described on our sister site, BUILDER, these include a number of high-profile, policy-setting leadership positions: She was a chairwoman for the USGBC board of directors, and is currently the chair of Green Business Certification Inc.  But perhaps none of her roles are as influential as that of co-director for the under-the radar, but unapologetic long-named think tank, the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems.

In 1988, when I first joined the JLC staff, "Max's Pot" (as I was introduced to it) was an organization that was pushing way beyond the concept of the "whole buildings." Max's Pot was working toward whole ecosystems and whole communities. 

JLC touched on  a number of Max's Pot's projects in 1989. The focus for each went beyond a wall system, beyond the building itself, into political and economic dimensions of the larger community.  For example, the Carrizo Springs project focused on caliche, a readily-available Texas mineral that could be used as a building material. Max's Pot established a caliche block production plant, creating jobs as well as a "maximum potential" building material. A community Girl Scouts headquarters made from the blocks, which also used bamboo reinforcement and mesquite-wood flooring - two other locally sourced materials - served as the demonstration project to promote the block plant. This was the first project I'd heard about that looked at "embodied energy," or that included an analysis of transportation impacts for building materials as the basis for an argument to use locally sourced materials.

After reading the BUILDER tribute, I now understand Gail Vittori's quiet influence on those Max's Pot projects. Her work serves as a reminder that building is never just about one project, but has dimensions that affect an entire community, an entire economy, an entire world.